We had a fire alarm at work today. Well, it wasn’t really an alarm, it was a false alarm. That meant it was really more of a drill.
I work in a big office building with a few thousand other people. It’s actually like a small city. It’s larger than the town I grew up in.
The standard protocol when the alarm goes off is that everybody is supposed to put down whatever they’re doing and calmly walk toward the exits. Don’t take the elevator on the way down; that would be bad luck. Then we are supposed to congregate in the parking garage across the street and walk around aimlessly until we notice that people are streaming back into the building because, after all, there never was any fire in the first place.
I’ve added a few rules of my own. For one thing, I always take my car keys. And my laptop computer. And I get one last good drink of coffee. (You never know when you’re going to get your next one.)
It’s hard to take these things seriously. If I would hear a big bang or actually see smoke some place, I’d probably be more anxious to get out the door. But as it is, I usually take my time to look around my desk to see if I’m forgetting anything.
We get these things every couple of months or so. They are almost always false alarms. Usually, it’s not a fire; it’s just some maintenance worker standing on a ladder with his head poked into a drop-down ceiling saying to himself, “Hmmm, I wonder where this wire goes to?” Then “snip” and “tweet-tweet-tweet”.
My first clue today was the attitude of the maintenance people I saw on my way out. I noticed several of them congregating around the alarm command center. Laughing. Oh, well. The rules say to get everybody out of the building first and ask questions later.
Actually, I don’t mind. The very first fire “drill” in this company that I was involved with was a real fire. Really. It happened several years ago, but it changed the way I look at fire alarms.
A bunch of us were working on the 14th floor when the lights dimmed. Then all our computers re-booted. There was a collective “ugh” that went through the office as everybody realized that their work was lost. Then the whole floor went dark. The emergency lights came on. And a few seconds later, the fire alarm sounded.
The guy I was working with asked me if this was a drill. I said “I dunno, but I’m not going to hang around to find out.”
The stairwell was crammed, but we were all orderly. Concerned, but civil, as we walked down 14 flights.
We all congregated at the base of the building. After a while, we learned that there had been a fire in the main electrical transformer that fed the building. We were not in any danger, but it was going to be many hours before it was going to be fixed so we could all go home.
So I headed for my car. And then I realized where my car keys were. On the 14th floor. And all the elevators were dead.
Two lessons I learned that day: Take every fire drill seriously. Always remember your car keys.
My knees ached as I walked up the fourteen flights. They ached more as I walked back down.
Many years later, two airplanes crashed into the buildings of the World Trade Center. In the few minutes that followed there was a lot of confusion about whether or not to evacuate the buildings. Many people jammed the stairwells going down while others wandered aimlessly wondering what to do. The irony was that the people watching it unfold on the TV news knew better what was going on than the people in the building.
Thousands of lives were saved that day by people that knew to treat every alarm seriously. Get out of the building and ask questions later. Hundreds more may have been saved if everybody had taken that advice.
My guess is that at the end of the day, the last thing that was on everybody’s mind was whether they had remembered their car keys.